Christopher Smith is a white law professor with a black son who goes to Harvard. When his son was doing an internship on Wall Street for a summer he was stopped repeatedly by the police as part of their Stop and Frisk program. His father writes a powerful essay about it.
When I heard that my 21-year-old son, a student at Harvard, had been stopped by New York City police on more than one occasion during the brief summer he spent as a Wall Street intern, I was angry. On one occasion, while wearing his best business suit, he was forced to lie face-down on a filthy sidewalk because—well, let’s be honest about it, because of the color of his skin. As an attorney and a college professor who teaches criminal justice classes, I knew that his constitutional rights had been violated. As a parent, I feared for his safety at the hands of the police—a fear that I feel every single day, whether he is in New York or elsewhere.
Moreover, as the white father of an African-American son, I am keenly aware that I never face the suspicion and indignities that my son continuously confronts. In fact, all of the men among my African-American in-laws—and I literally mean every single one of them—can tell multiple stories of unjustified investigatory police stops of the sort that not a single one of my white male relatives has ever experienced.
Want to understand white privilege? There you go. Smith has an idea for how to fix this and I think it’s a pretty good one:
If we truly believe that a tax must be imposed in order to control crime, then we should all share in the burden of that tax. We should not take the easy and unfair route of imposing the tax on someone else—especially when that someone else is already overburdened. As an intellectual exercise, why don’t we envision matching the application of stop-and-frisk to the demographic composition of a city? In New York City, if officers wanted to stop-and-frisk three African-American men on their shift, they’d also have to stop-and-frisk five white women and five white men—and proportionately equivalent numbers of Latinos and Asian-Americans. Some might say, “Wait, it’s a waste of the officers’ time to impose these searches on innocent people instead of searching people who might actually be criminals.” But the evidence shows that New York City police were already imposing stop-and-frisk searches on innocent people nearly 90 percent of the time—it is just that the burden of those stops and searches was endured almost exclusively by young men of color.
Moreover, if police start stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of white women and men in the manner they’ve been searching young men of color, they will undoubtedly issue some summonses and make some arrests. There are middle-class white people in possession of illegal guns—not to mention heroin, illegal prescription painkillers, and marijuana. The success rates may not be high. But this shouldn’t deter police officials. After all, low success rates haven’t dissuaded them from searching young men of color for contraband and firearms.
This suggestion isn’t entirely tongue-in-cheek. If police were to actually apply it, even for a short while, it would test society’s disregard for individualized suspicion and force us to think more deeply about what it means to impose stop-and-frisk on large numbers of innocent people. It is easy enough to rationalize away a “special tax” when we apply it to “them.” But how will we feel about that burden once it’s shared by all of us?
That’s a very easy question to answer. If white stockbrokers and attorneys started being stopped and frisked routinely, that program would come to an end almost immediately. We casually accept the most flagrant violations of rights when they happen to others. The wealthy and powerful wouldn’t stand for this for a second.